The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth | Book Review

The bizarre world we currently inhabit—a world about as far removed from “the age of reason” as one could possibly imagine—is a world where “28% of Americans believe that Bill Gates wants to use vaccines to implant microchips in people,” according to a recent YouGov poll. And as if that weren’t cause for concern enough, roughly the same percentage of Americans (26%) believe that the sun revolves around the earth, and not the other way around, according to a 2012 National Science Foundation survey.

Clearly, we have an issue if, out of every 10 people you meet, on average two or three of them will believe that the earth is the center of the universe or that the government is using the COVID-19 pandemic as cover to implant microchips in the population. If we ever needed a defense of truth, the time is now.  

In The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth, author, journalist, and activist Jonathan Rauch provides this much-needed defense, showing us how the Enlightenment thinkers of the 17th- and 18th-centuries created the foundations for “The Constitution of Knowledge,” a set of norms, practices, and institutions that seek to peacefully transform conflict and disagreement into knowledge and order, just as the US Constitution provides the foundations for the peaceful resolution of political disagreement. 

Rauch begins with a discussion of Theaetetus, Plato’s dialogue exploring the nature of knowledge. As Plato’s greatest work of epistemology, it leaves the reader with an unsatisfying conclusion: in the search for the foundations of certain knowledge, there are none. Socrates and his interlocutor discover that knowledge is elusive, and that it cannot be grounded in either perception (as perception varies) or on feelings of subjective certainty (because we are often wrong about beliefs we were once certain about). However one tries to ground knowledge, it seems that certainty is impossible to attain. 

That this dialogue is considered Plato’s greatest work in epistemology may seem puzzling, as it ostensibly leads to nowhere. But, as Rauch notes, it teaches us a far more valuable lesson: that rigor and humility are the foundations of the truth-seeking attitude and that acquiring knowledge is a conversation, not a destination. Knowledge is something that we pursue collectively, not individually, and that we attain provisionally, not indefinitely. That’s why the five words that end the dialogue are the most important: Let us meet here again

Rauch, formally trained as a journalist, knows firsthand the power of institutions to check the biases and inaccuracies of the individual. From gathering facts from sources and interviews to the fact-checking and copy-editing process to expert review and challenges from within and outside the newsroom, journalism, as an institution, is a collaborative profession that cannot be performed in isolation (unlike creating conspiracy theories on YouTube, which essentially anyone is qualified to do). While it would take years to develop the necessary expertise to write a credible, respectable story in a mainstream media outlet (which is subject to the criticism of experts), you can launch a YouTube channel tomorrow and find plenty of people gullible enough to believe that the White House is being run by lizard overlords. 

So while the field of journalism is not perfect—bias and error of course still creep in—as an institution it at least provides the checks and balances, decentralization, and layers of accountability and review that keep it relatively honest. While we would be unwise to place all of our trust in any single journalist or news outlet operating independently, it would be vastly more misguided to reject the entire journalistic community and instead place our trust in a single demagogic politician or a small group of self-published conspiracists.  

And this is the main message of the book: in addition to the uncertainty of all knowledge, as individuals we are biased and fallible and oftentimes completely blind to our own distorted thinking. It is only when we enter into a “reality-based community”—subjecting our beliefs to the critical scrutiny of those who may disagree with us—that we can have any hope of achieving a correspondence between our beliefs and reality.  

Journalism is one such reality-based community. Science, academia, and the courts are the other prominent examples. Each community is decentralized, with no single individual ruling from the top-down; each has a series of checks and balances; each has procedures for review and criticism and layers of appeal; and each abides by the two rules of what Rauch refers to as “liberal science”: (1) no one gets final say, and (2) no one has personal authority. 

Societies and communities that operate according to these rules—the foundations of the Constitution of Knowledge—are in general freer, more peaceful, and more accurate in their collective beliefs. Liberal science, in this way, transforms disagreement and pluralism (which is unavoidable) into depersonalized and civil dialogue to achieve reconciliation and, eventually, provisional knowledge. Since no one has final say, a diversity of viewpoints (pluralism) is encouraged, and since no one has personal authority to decree the truth by force or coercion, arguments are evaluated according to their own merits. This is the model of science, and where it is followed, progress in knowledge and morality is achieved. 

But as Rauch points out, just as the country could not long survive if the US Constitution were to be ignored by the people, the truth-seeking process itself will not long survive if the Constitution of Knowledge is likewise ignored or rejected. 

The enemies of the truth-seeking process in the contemporary world—cancel culture on the far left and troll culture on the far right—violate the Constitution of Knowledge and attack its underlying institutions on a daily basis. Whether shouting down or deplatforming speakers (cancel culture) or spreading misinformation and creating chaos and confusion (far right troll culture), reality in either camp is thought to mean whoever has the personal authority and power to decree it as the final truth. Mirror-images of each, the radical wings of the left and right similarly reject “humanity’s greatest invention”: the outsourcing of reality to social networks that depersonalize arguments and evaluate claims based on evidence and reason. 

The dangers of far-right troll culture need little elaborating, but Rauch, a long-time gay rights activist, has even less patience for cancel culture. Understanding that homosexuals have, throughout most of the twentieth century, been canceled or otherwise discredited and silenced, Rauch writes that “we did not spend the last half century fighting against it [canceling] so that we could turn the tables and make pariahs of others.”

The very idea that minorities need to be “protected” from speech is itself patronizing. As Rauch wrote:

“[Emotional safetyism] assumes that we want to be ‘safe’ from words or ideas; that we will wilt in the heat of an argument; that we need protection from ‘assaultive’ words and should run to the authorities to get it. Homosexuals were stereotyped as weak…African Americans as childish, women as delicate. Gay people and other minorities fought for legal equality by joining arguments and winning them, and we fought for cultural equality by defeating the sterotype of weakness. The last thing we need is to resuscitate it. Thanks, but keep your emotional ‘protection.’”

One interesting point to keep in mind is that “cancel culture” has historically been a phenomenon of the right (in ways, it still is; look what happens when Republicans speak out against Trump). From the Catholic Church’s “list of prohibited books” and persecution of scientists and atheists to the early twentieth-century battles by conservatives to prevent the teaching of evolution in schools, liberals have historically been on the side of free speech and open inquiry. Now, ironically enough, a good number of those on the left have embraced the very tactics they have spent the greater part of the last 400 years opposing. 

In either case, when our truth-seeking institutions are attacked, what are we left with? If we completely lose trust in the media, in government, in science, and in academia, where are we supposed to turn for the truth? We are encouraged to turn to exactly where the enemies of these institutions want us to turn: to them. That gives them the individual coercive power that institutions are specifically set up to deny, and so it’s no wonder why they are under constant assault. It’s time we start doing a better job of defending the institutions of democracy and recovering some semblance of collective sanity. Otherwise, we let the trolls win, and on a larger scale than could have ever been imagined.